India and Bangladesh Erase a Bit of History

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Of all the back-of-the-beyond places I’ve visited on the Subcontinent, the most unusual are the so-called “enclaves” along the India-Bangladesh border. They are little parcels of Indian or Bangladeshi territory that are wholly enclosed by the territory of the other country. A little bit of history on how they came into being:

The Raja of Cooch Behar and the Nawab of Rangpur, the rulers of two minor kingdoms that faced each other near the Teesta River, staked games of chess with plots of land. To settle their debts, they passed chits — pieces of paper representing the territory won or lost — back and forth. When Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the law lord who partitioned India, drew the 1947 border, Cooch Behar went to India and Rangpur to Bangladesh — including the people who lived on the two kings’ 162 “chit mahals,” or paper palaces. Their villages, caught on the wrong side of the border, are now small islands of India surrounded by Bangladesh or vice versa.

The enclaves, along with many of the other border issues between India and Bangladesh had been the subject of diplomatic discussion for years, and at the time I visited, officials of the Border Security Force, who have the unenviable job of policing this porous boundary, did not expect much progress.

Amazingly, this issue looks like it will finally be resolved. India and Bangladesh are expected to sign an agreement exchanging the territories, the obvious common sense solution, during the visit of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Dhaka next week.  This small diplomatic victory has no doubt been helped by the seriousness of the people involved: Shivshankar Menon, India’s national security advisor, for whom rationalizing this border is an important step in controlling the flow of arms, militants and counterfeit currency into India; Gowher Rizvi, a brilliant political scientist who has been advising the Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Hasina on foreign affairs; and Sheikh Hasina and Sonia Gandhi, leader of India’s Congress Party, who, as the matriarchs of their respective dynasties, share a close personal relationship. One of Gandhi’s last official trips before leaving India to be treated for an undisclosed medical condition early this month was to Dhaka, which she visited as a show of unity between their two parties.

Whatever the reasons, though, this is a welcome bit of good news for the region, where territorial disputes have a tendency to drag on for generations. This one, at least, looks like it has finally been put to rest.